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Restoring Worlds Wetlands Key To Curbing Bird Flu

The Pantanal Wetlands in Brazil
by Matthew Lee and Ken Wekesa
Nairobi (AFP) Apr 12, 2006
Restoring the world's wetlands may be critical to preventing outbreaks of avian flu as their revival will keep migratory birds from mixing with domesticated fowl, a UN report said Tuesday.

It said the degradation of wetlands had forced wild birds, some carrying the deadly H5N1 strain, into alternative habitats increasing the risk of the spread of the disease to poultry and onto humans, many of whom live in close proximity to their flocks.

"The loss of wetlands around the globe is forcing many wild birds onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with chickens, ducks, geese and other domesticated fowl," it said.

The report, presented here at a two-day conference at the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme (UNEP), noted that contact between migratory birds and their domesticated cousins was a major cause of the spread of avian flu, including H5N1 which is potentially deadly to humans.

"We know there is a very tight link between the conditions of ecosystems and the likelihood of threats to human health," David Rapport, a Canadian professor of ecosystem health and the lead author of the study, told reporters.

"There are numerous pressing reasons for conserving and restoring degraded ecosystems like wetlands," UNEP deputy director Shafqat Kakakhel said, noting their role in filtering pollution and absorbing floods and storm water.

"Their ability to disperse and keep wild birds away from domestic ones is now yet another compelling argument for conserving and rehabilitating them," he said.

The report said current anti-bird flu measures -- including isloation, quarantine, culls and medication -- were likely to be only "quick fixes" and that environmental improvements offered medium- and long-term solutions.

It urged "massive" investment in wetlands restoration as well as concerted efforts to move poultry farms from beneath migratory bird flyways where the chances of domestic fowl being infected are greater.

"Intensive poultry operations along migratory wild bird routes... increase the risks of transfer of pathogens between migrating birds and domestic fowl," it said.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu, its most aggressive form, has killed more than 100 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation, and spread from Asia to Europe and Africa.

The report presented Tuesday, entitled "Avian Influenza and the Environment," also called for separating poultry from human populations, while acknowledging the idea would meet resistance in some parts of the world.

"As unpalatable as this may be, where it is clearly in the interest of preventing future pandemics with potentially catastrophic global effects, it can and should be undertaken," said Rapport.

The Nairobi conference came on the heels of the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil last month where attendants underscored the risks posed by bird flu.

That meeting concluded that a huge range of species, not only birds, are threatened by H5N1 and its impact, particularly when the strain is fought through mass culling of poultry, a staple food in much of the world.

"Culling of poultry, especially in developing countries where chicken is a key source of protein, may lead to local people turning to 'bushmeat' as an alternative," it said.

"This may put new and unacceptable pressure on a wide range of wild living creatures from wild pigs up to endangered species like chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes," it said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

Related Links

Bird Flu Could Prompt World Recession
London (UPI) Apr 12, 2006
A bird flu pandemic could trigger a "sharp and deep" global economic recession if national governments and financial institutions do not act to prepare themselves now, the International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday.

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